"Our mission is to completely replace the use of animals as a food technology by 2035," said Patrick O. Brown at the 2020 Web Summit.
- Impossible Foods is a company that makes plant-based meat alternative products.
- At the 2020 Web Summit, CEO Patrick O. Brown spoke about the impacts of meat production on the environment, and his company's long-term goal of phasing out the industry.
- Livestock currently contribute about 14.5 percent of global emissions.
What's the world's most important scientific problem?
To Impossible Foods CEO Patrick O. Brown, it's decoding the chemistry behind what makes meat delicious, and then replicating those flavors in sustainable plant-based food products that outcompete the meat industry.
Solving this problem isn't only about boosting profits for Impossible Foods, which is already valued at an estimated $4 billion. Brown said it's about protecting the world against two of the "biggest environmental threats that humanity has ever faced": rapidly progressing climate change and the catastrophic loss of biodiversity.
"By far, the biggest factor in both [of those problems] is the use of animals as a food technology, globally," Brown said. "It's by far the most destructive technology in human history," Brown said last week at Web Summit 2020, adding that the animal food-product industry is more damaging to the environment than fossil fuels.
So far, international efforts to curb climate change have been only marginally effective. The U.N. Environment Programme reported that even if the signatories of the Paris Agreement meet their stated goals, global temperatures are still projected to rise throughout this century, "bringing even wider-ranging and more destructive climate impacts."
On the national level, getting governments to set and stick to climate policies is obviously difficult. And on the individual level, it might be even harder to get people to change their behavior in the name of environmentalism; think how difficult it'd be to influence people to stop flying, use less electricity or switch to an electric vehicle. Now imagine asking your average American restaurant patron to give up meat forever.
That's why Impossible Foods' strategy is to appeal primarily to consumers' taste buds, not their inner environmentalist. The company is aiming to make its meat alternatives more delicious, healthier, and cheaper than the real thing.
"By next year, I think our mainstream product will actually, if we do a side-by-side comparison with nothing by meat eaters, will be preferred by a majority of them," Brown said.
The ultimate goal is to phase out the meat industry.
"Our mission is to completely replace the use of animals as a food technology by 2035," Brown said. "We're dead serious about it. We totally believe it's doable."
Land deforested to make room for cattle pasture
Credit: Adobe Stock
That may seem like a quixotic goal. After all, meat alternative companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have been around for about a decade. And while both have been undeniably successful, meat consumption in North America hasn't changed much in recent years (although people are eating slightly less beef).
Still, mainstream meat-alternative options—like Burger King's Impossible Whopper, added to menus last year—are a relatively new phenomenon to most consumers. And as people become increasingly familiar with these products, and as meat-alternative companies scale up to make plant-based products cheaper than meat, preferences could start to tilt.
One industry that's betting on that happening: big meat. In 2019, leading meat companies like Tyson, Smithfield, and Perdue all began rolling out their own alternative meat products.
"There is a growing demand out there," John Pauley, the chief commercial officer for Smithfield, told The New York Times. "We'd be foolish not to pay attention."
Brown might advise these companies to invest even more heavily in plant-based foods.
"It's game over for the incumbent industry, they just don't realize it yet," he said.
If Brown's right, phasing out the meat industry could measurably reduce climate change, considering livestock currently contribute about 14.5 percent of global emissions.
Italian meatballs recipe from Impossible Foods
Credit: Impossible Foods
"By replacing animals as our technology for making meat, we can turn back the clock on global warming and restore native ecosystems," Impossible Foods wrote in a blog post. "The recovery of biomass on land currently devoted to livestock would remove enough CO2 from the atmosphere to offset 20 years of emissions at current levels, and once livestock methane emissions stop, rapid decay of atmospheric methane would effectively negate another 10 years of total GHG emissions at current rate."
Still, even if alternative-meat companies destroy the beef industry by 2035, that wouldn't solve the problem of climate change. It's also worth mentioning that some methods of raising livestock and producing meat are worse than others.
A 2020 study published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems notes that the "carbon footprint of meat alternatives is likely lower than the majority of beef consumed" in the U.S., but that the:
"...ecological impacts of human diets are not as simple as plant vs. meat discussions might suggest. The global food system is far too diverse and contingent on unique environmental and socioeconomic circumstances to allow for one-size-fits-all policy recommendations."
The future of meat alternatives
For Impossible Foods, the main goal has always been to keep tweaking their plant-based meat alternatives until they taste better than the real thing. So, assuming the company succeeds and displaces the meat industry, what's next?
We asked Brown whether Impossible Foods would ever consider developing entirely new forms of plant-based foods, instead of products that mimic familiar meat flavors.
"Oh absolutely, and this is something internally, and in our [research and development] team, we love to think about," Brown said. "Once we've completely replaced animals as a food technology, then the gloves come off. There's all sorts of novel meat flavors and textures we could create and we're super eager to do it."
Traci Des Jardins, a chef and restaurateur in the San Francisco area who also participated in the 2020 Web Summit presentation, said creating new types of plant-based "meats" might not be as strange as it sounds.
After all, we already have strange foods that have "become their own thing" simply because we give names to them. Case in point: the hot dog.
"I can imagine products that we could create at Impossible that would be amazing things that could become as iconic as the hot dog," Jardins said. "Because a hot dog really means nothing. It's just a name that's been attributed to this thing that goes in this bun. And so, I think there are many, many possibilities, and that we could create all kinds of delicious things that don't have the environmental impact that animal-produced meats have."
Beefless meat enters the mainstream.
- Burger King is testing its first major foray into the field of beefless patties.
- On top of plant-based meats, cellular agriculture — or "cell-ag" — can also yield animal-free patties.
- A new report lists 90 reasons that cell-ag holds a lot of promise.
Burger King has just announced they're testing a new version of their Whopper that's completely free of actual beef, in 59 locations around St. Louis. Not that even Whopper devotees can tell the difference, according to reports. It's called the "Impossible Whopper." (Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat burgers are already available in grocery stores.)
The food chain isn't the first to offer a lab-grown, plant-based patty option, but Burger King's announcement is a very big deal. While the new Whopper's currently in testing, if it becomes available at its 7,200 restaurants, it means millions of consumers will be introduced to an animal cruelty-free meat option that's every bit as satisfying as traditional fare.
For those concerned about their health, climate change, and animal rights, there might be no turning back.
The Impossible Taste Test | Impossible Whopper
Burger King conducted an experiment to evaluate how well Whopper fans know their beloved Whopper.
Welcome to cellular agriculture
While the Impossible Whopper and other alternative "meats" are a beginning, researchers are also looking further down the road to animal-product alternatives constructed at the cellular level that don't even require plant matter as current options do.
Enter "Cellular Agriculture," or "Cell-ag," a new form of food and clothing production that results in food and clothing products indistinguishable from traditional offerings without the necessity of raising — and killing — a live animal, or even a plant. A report explaining what this could mean has just been released. It's called 90 Reasons to Consider Cellular Agriculture.
As author Kristopher Gasteratos notes in the report's introduction, modern animal husbandry is no longer the industry we've known for thousands of years: "While animal products have been incredibly positive for society over multiple generations, today they are proving more destructive than beneficial with the rise of factory farming." Gasteratos is a researcher at Harvard and founder of the Cellular Agriculture Society.
The report's cumulative effect is overwhelming: 90 good reasons is a lot of good reasons. They're arranged in categories: Health, Environment, Human & Animal Rights, and Business and Economics. Here's a brief summary of each.
Image source: Cellular Agriculture Society
The health case
This section contains, among other things, a list of the things we won't get from lab-grown cell-ag foods, including:
- pathogens such as Salmonella and E. Coli
- fecal contamination
- meat and seafood growth hormones
- mad-cow disease prions
- swine and avian flu, and other illnesses
- plastic particles in "seafood"
- mercury in "seafood"
- animal-production antibiotics that accelerate the development of resistant superbugs
Cell-ag also looks to promote greater food production stability and predictability, and can scale to help feed the planet's growing population. Their contaminant-free growing environment gives cell-ag foods a longer shelf life. Critical shortages can be more efficiently addresses after disasters, and famines can be avoided, and geographically independent production solves current supply issues in areas that struggle to import food.
Image source: Brooke Becker / Shutterstock
The environment case
We know that the extensive land-use requirements of animal-based products are among the main drivers of climate change. For some animals, it's an issue of grazing land. For others, such as seafood, it's processing.
Here's how much less land Gasteratos estimates we'll use after switching to cell-ag:
- cattle — 99%
- dairy — 97%
- poultry — 66%
- pigs — 82%
- seafood — 55%
- land overall — 80%
It's much the same story with water use:
- cattle — 98%
- dairy — 99.6%
- poultry — 92%
- pigs — -95%
- seafood — 86%
- water overall — 94%
Here's the reduction in greenhouse gases (GHG) an industrial switch to cell-ag may produce:
- cattle — 96%
- dairy — 65%
- poultry — 74%
- pigs — 85%
- seafood — 59%
- GHG overall — 76%
General environmental benefits
Production and food and clothing animals is dirty work, and there's a long list of pollutants it generates, all of which may be avoided by cell-ag: land and ocean animal waste, production chemicals that create dead zones, and plastic pollution from the fishing industry among them.
In addition to resulting in less deforestation, cell-ag promises less ocean habitat destruction from bottom-trawling, and an overall reduced need for energy in food production.
Cattle farming is a key driver of deforestation in Brazil. Rio Branco, Acre, Brazil. Image source: CIFOR
The animal and human rights case
Well, obviously, cell-ag could bring about the end of killing countless cows, pigs, chickens, and seafood and so on. Not to mention the elimination of the often inhumane conditions, particularly in factory farming, in which production animals spend their short lives.
You might not think at first there's much of a human-rights issue in food production, but there are several, and they're serious. Factory farming and food processing operations can be brutal places to work. Factory farm workers, says the report, are at higher risk for amputations, tannery workers are regularly exposed to carcinogenic chemicals, and the seafood industry exploits cheap and slave labor for catching fish.
In the U.S., there's also environmental racism that cell-ag could end, with food-production facilities exposing poorer — often black — neighborhoods to dangerous runoff and sprayed chemicals.
Pig farm fecal waste being sent airborne on the edge of a residential community
Pig farm fecal waste being sent airborne on the edge of a residential community
The business and economics case
In addition to the dawning of a new industry with lots of new jobs, the rise of cell-ag has other positive economic benefits as well.
A food supply that's independent of weather conditions cannot only be a boon in the climate-change era, but the same foods — being grown indoors — can become available in any area, regardless of local climate.
Because cell-ag is more predictable and controllable than traditional agriculture, it affords not only greater quality consistency, but also greater financial predictability. Cell-ag can reduce the uncertainties faced today by today's growers, and help avoid the need for the many subsidies and bailouts currently required for both over- and under-production, saving taxpayers money. Even growers' neighbors benefit once farming stops lowering the value of their own homes.
Cruelty-free products may also become valued premium products for which premium prices may be asked.
Image source: Aaron Weiss / Shutterstock
Would you like a better life with that Whopper?
Gasteratos is undoubtedly personally invested in cell-ag, and so the report paints a decidedly rosy picture of its benefits. Even so, you wouldn't think a new burger lunch option could make such a drastic difference in the world. 90 Reasons to Consider Cellular Agriculture may convince you it can.
Update Tuesday, April 16, 2019: The original headline for this post referred to the Impossible Whopper as being "lab-grown," which is technically true. The plant-based burger was developed in a lab. However, a number of our readers felt the headline suggested the burger was the product of cell-ag, which it is not. To avoid any further confusion, we've changed the headline.
Global warming and climate change is already reshaping coastlines due to higher waters. Pretty soon our next big cities will have to be at sea. But how will they make sustainable food?
Being able to look into the future is a skill that mankind has dreamed about for thousands of years. But seasteading expert Marc Collins believes that the future lies in floating cities where we'll be able to grow meat in laboratories and drink desalinated sea water. It's not that crazy (at all) to believe that once the sea levels rise far enough that humanity will have to either leave the planet or adapt to the new high waters. Marc Collins is the co-founder of Blue Frontiers, a company that aims to design these cities on the sea.
"It’s a common enough scenario. A vegetarian has been invited to a friend’s place for dinner. The host forgets that the guest is a vegetarian, and places a pork chop in front of her. What is she to do? "
It’s a common enough scenario. A vegetarian has been invited to a friend’s place for dinner. The host forgets that the guest is a vegetarian, and places a pork chop in front of her. What is she to do? Probably her initial feelings will be disgust and repulsion. Vegetarians often develop these sorts of attitudes towards meat-based food, making it easier for them to be absolutists about shunning meat.
Suppose, though, that the vegetarian overcomes her feelings of distaste, and decides to eat the chop, perhaps out of politeness to her host. Has she done something morally reprehensible? Chances are that what she has been served won’t be the kind of humanely raised meat that some (but not all) ethical vegetarians find permissible to consume. More likely, it would be the product of cruel, intensive factory farming. Eating the meat under these circumstances couldn’t then be an act of what the philosopher Jeff McMahan calls ‘benign carnivorism’. Would the vegetarian guest have done something wrong by breaking her own moral code?
Most vegetarians are concerned about animal suffering caused by meat consumption, or about the impact of factory farming on the environment. For simplicity’s sake, I will consider only the case of animal suffering, but the same argument could be applied to the other bad consequences of today’s practices of factory farming, including, for example, greenhouse gas emissions, inefficient use of land, and use of pesticides, fertiliser, fuel, feed and water, as well as the use of antibiotics causing antibiotic resistance in livestock’s bacteria which is then passed on to humans.
Because eating meat typically supports the practice of raising animals in factory farms where they are inhumanely treated and killed, eating meat is likely to contribute to animal suffering (or to the other bad consequences of factory farming). Now, if we agree that one of the good reasons for being vegetarian is that eating meat to some degree encourages practices that cause animal suffering, then at a first glance it might seem that eating meat only rarely is morally permissible (but see the philosopher Shelly Kagan for a counterargument) because it is very likely that eating meat only occasionally will not have any impact on the amount of suffering inflicted on animals.
However, by not eating meat, and especially by not eating meat when they are offered it in front of non-vegetarians, vegetarians send out a message to other people. By sticking to their ethical commitment, vegetarians signal that there is something wrong with being a carnivore, thus prompting other people to consider the morality of their habit of eating meat and perhaps even persuading them that consuming meat is wrong. In other words, the positive impact of being a vegetarian, in terms of reduction of animal suffering, might be amplified when vegetarianism is publicly defended and demonstrated in social contexts. And, conversely, making exceptions to vegetarianism might convey the message that eating meat is not so bad after all. If even vegetarians sometimes eat meat, then eating meat can’t be so reprehensible from a moral perspective, can it? So perhaps the guest who ate the pork chop was morally wrong for this reason: she sent out the wrong message to the people who were having dinner with her.
But it isn’t as simple as that. Avoiding meat in all circumstances, including in the circumstances in which the vegetarian guest found herself, is a strategy that can backfire. Plausibly, the ‘right’ message to be sent to non-vegetarians is one that increases the chances that as many of them as possible will give up meat or at least reduce their meat consumption. If people perceive vegetarianism as a position that allows for no exception, they are probably less likely to become vegetarian. A flexible moral position is more appealing than a rigid one that allows for no exceptions. It is more likely that people would be convinced to become flexible vegetarians – that is, that they abstain from eating meat with some exceptions – than to become rigid vegetarians, and being a flexible vegetarian is preferable, from a moral perspective, to being a carnivore.
So the vegetarian guest’s eating meat when offered has probably shown the host that it is possible to be a (flexible) vegetarian and, at the same time, occasionally enjoy some meat without feeling guilty. This has certainly made (flexible) vegetarianism look more accessible and more appealing than it would have been if the guest had refused to eat meat. Granted, perhaps by eating meat only occasionally one would lose the right to call herself a ‘vegetarian’, but this might not be all that important. What matters more is that a world with many people who eat meat only occasionally is far preferable to the world we currently live in where there are relatively few vegetarians and a vast majority of carnivores.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
A common belief that regulations are a burden on businesses is challenged by Maryn McKenna’s book Big Chicken.
1. If you want to be a good boss you will want regulation (likewise good economists). If that surprises you, Maryn McKenna’s book Big Chicken shows you’ve caught a virulent strain of bad ideas about business.
2. McKenna’s meaty history shows “how antibiotics created modern agriculture” but also antibiotic-resistant superbugs (our prevailing pecking order puts profit above deadly risks).
5. Before 1945 scientists knew ill-suited antibiotic use would breed resistant bacteria—eradicating easy-to-kill kinds clears space for hardier bugs to evolve and thrive (livestock now consume ~80% all antibiotics).
8. Consider now-popular “free market” ideas. Did voluntary transactions self-organize well? Did businesses behave responsibly? Did bad choices harm only bad choosers? If not then, why now?
9. Not choosing industrialized meat is no defense (e.g., meat-plant bugs spread to a hospital infecting 4,000 newborns killing 24 mothers and infants). We inhabit a microbial commons, rife with “tragedy of the commons” risks.
10. Can we afford to remain oblivious to the obvious? Isn’t it clear that, as in sports, if all players aren’t held to decent standards, good guys lose to prepared-to-cut-corners folks? Unregulated games can become “scoundrel cascades,” where race-to-the-bottom pressures push decent players to match the worst sins to stay in the game.
12. Here cost-benefit-style thinking misleads—how many deaths is cheap chicken worth? 40,000+ annually? Well “markets” have already “decided” that, while risking millions more deaths (post-antibiotic era plagues).
13. In every market externalizing costs increases profits. Handling such dysfunctional incentives is hampered by an unhealthy alliance between backseat-driver theorizing economists and opportunistic bad businesses (—>”How Economists Turned Corporations into Predators”).
14. It’s an amazing case of sophisticated-seeming abstractions creating concrete stupidity. It’s far from the only “free market” example (e.g. claiming corporate taxes hinder growth, while actual “good” entrepreneurs testify not). Garrett Harding complained some economists sprinkle ideas such as “externality” like “pixie dust” before reverting to reality-denying toy-model math-ogling games.
15. Interestingly, my opponents on regulation are often also correct (—>3 regulation resistor types). Many bad counterproductive regulations exist. But that means we must consider the concrete particulars, not abstract idealizations like “permission-less innovation.”
16. Running a good (decent, effective, unharmful) business requires level-playing-field regulations
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions